"Ensign Robert D. Karl's SIGSBEE "Recollections"
4.0 Robert Goes To Sea -The USS SIGSBEE
A short time after leaving Fie Control School I was assigned to Kearny, New Jersey as part of the commissioning crew of the USS SIGSBEE which was in its final stages of construction. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I eagerly caught the Pennsylvania Railroad train for Washington to see Alice once again!
Before the SIGSBEE was placed in Commission in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard, I had little contact with the Commanding Officer, Commander Russell. Rather, my daily contact was with a Lt. Norton, who had seen action in the South Pacific. He was the Gunnery Officer; I was to be the Assistant Gunnery Officer.
I will always remember SIGSBEE's trip from the Kearny Shipyard to the Brooklyn Shipyard. My eyes were opened as to what we could expect from Captain Russell. Ordinarily, an enlisted man located on the Bridge would utilize Enunciators to communicate orders to the Main Engine Room. When we got underway from the Kearny Shipyard, Commander Russell gave so many orders for the Engine Room that the sailor on the Enunciators was greatly confused. He was replaced by a higher rated sailor who also got confused. Ensign Karl was then ordered to report to the bridge "on the double" where I was ordered to handle the communications! I managed to keep my wits together and handled the task until we docked at the Brooklyn Yard. However, this was just the beginning!
I was a member of the Naval Team that Commissioned the SIGSBEE on January 23, 1943. Shortly thereafter, the ship got underway to Buzzard's Bay Maine, to take on ammunition. I had the eight-to-midnight Deck Watch after we had arrived and anchored. There were a number of lights showing from other ships and barges in the area. The wind started to pick up around 2100 and about 2200 I noticed that some lights were slowly moving toward SIGSBEE. I called Captain Russell to tell him that I thought a barge or large vessel was drifting toward us. As he came out on deck, a large barge drifted to us -- passing under the motor whaleboat which was hung out on the starboard side davits. The barge then bumped us slightly aft of amidships. The Captain sounded a General Alarm which caused all hands to man their Battle Stations. However, there was noting anyone could do to fend off the barge. Fortunately there was only a rub marking on the hull where contact had been made; there apparently was no other damage. We attempt to contact the barge but apparently everyone on it was asleep! Captain Russell also tried to raise the Port Captain but to no avail. Being frustrated in his efforts, the Captain then "read me out" as if I or anyone else could have prevented the barge from drifting down on us. So much for my first watch at anchor! I was convinced my first Skipper was a model for the famous Captain Queeg!
The SIGSBEE and crew then proceeded underway to Casco Bay, Maine for training before sailing for Guantonimo, Cuba, for "shakedown". As we left Casco Bay and were heading south, we passed near New London, Conn. where the U.S. submarines were operating. One submarine apparently thought the SIGSBEE was a good target and fired a practice torpedo at the ship. Good Shot!! The torpedo hit us, went under the ship and broached on the port side. Had the torpedo been fitted with a warhead, SIGSBEE'S life might well have been over! The Captain tried to raise the submarine with our sound gear--but the sub skipper wasn't exactly stupid! We never found out who fired that shot although I'm sure Captain Russell tried his best. I learned that submariners are a close-knit group and certainly no fools.
On our way to Gitmo, we were joined by other ships. One afternoon as I became "Officer of the Deck" for the 1600 to 1800 Watch and as we practiced high speed maneuvers, the Main Battery Gun Director broadcast "MAN OVERBOARD". I immediately ordered "Stop All Engines" but could not order a turn since I did not know on which side of the ship the crewman had gone overboard. We learned that the lost crewman was an engineer who had just come off watch and for an unknown reason, was hanging onto lifelines on the fantail. He had been sighted briefly by the Director Crew as he surfaced in the prop wash as "Man Overboard" was broadcast. Whether he fell in by accident or was tossed over the side due to the ship's maneuvering was never established. Because of prop wash turbulence it was speculated that he was already dead as he surfaced. The crew of the SIGSBEE searched unsuccessfully for the body of the crewman; it was never found. The Captain was "beside himself" saying that the event would be a terrible mark on his record. He seemed to show no remorse for the crewman. I don't recall his blaming me for the accident, but I felt he would be happier if I were on a different ship.
5.0 MARRIAGE DISCUSSIONS
After our shakedown, we spent time in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard to correct some problems. I welcomed this brief period as it gave me an opportunity to go to Washington to see Alice. The ship was then ordered to Norfolk, Virginia. Captain Russell, in one of his infrequent magnanimous moods, gave leave to those personnel not scheduled for on-board duty. He called me into his cabin and said that if I would get married he'd grant me leave to go to Washington. I did not feel I could agree to get married. After more discussions, he relented, gave his approval and I was on my way to 3900 Connecticut Ave. in Washington. It was great to be with Alice again! Before leaving to return to the SIGSBEE for deployment to the Pacific, I recall Alice and I discussed marriage when I returned from Pearl Harbor. I had been hesitant to ask her to marry me at the time, for I did not want her to run the risk of becoming a "war widow".
6.0 ACTION IN THE PACIFIC
The SIGSBEE and crew traversed the Panama Canal on July 27, 1943 behind the carrier, USS ESSEX, which we were escorting to Hawaii. Captain Russell again exhibited his usual martinet character by issuing an order as we passed through the locks and the rest of the canal, that there would be no "lolligagging" or sightseeing! Everyone was to "turn to" e.g. attend to business. However, there were many places on the ship that the Captain couldn't observe and crewmembers not on watch were able to enjoy the sights. Few crewmembers had seen the Canal before. The crossing was, therefore, a most interesting and educational experience.
After arriving at Pearl Harbor on August 9, 1943, we were soon thrown into combat action. SIGSBEE'S first contact with the Japanese was during a raid on Marcus Island, a low, isolated island in the northwest Pacific. The SIGSBEE was part of a Task Group which included several aircraft carriers who were giving their aviators some battle experience and putting the Japs on the defensive. One happening still remains etched in my mind. A parachute was seen opening and as it was descending at least one of our fighters mistakenly made a shooting pass at the pilot hanging by the chute. We later heard that the pilot in the chute was an American pilot who fortunately was not killed but was hit in the groin. Later, while talking with a pilot, I described the incident. The pilot mentioned that it was expected that if an enemy pilot of a shot-down plane was not killed, he'd be in the air the next day to kill you thus attempting to excuse the action of the American pilot. In a separate event, a U.S. torpedo plane was almost shot down by friendly fire when he approached the Task Force in a questionable manner. This raid was indeed a training effort and many lessons were learned by all. Although SIGSBEE did some shore bombardment, we did not experience Japanese fire. They apparently had their hands full defending from the attacks of our carriers.
Following Marcus Island, the next Japanese engagement was a raid on Wake Island. It was on this raid that SIGSBEE first came under enemy fire. SIGSBEE was part of a Task Group of three cruisers and three destroyers. The Task Group was aligned in an arrow formation with the destroyers forming an arrowhead and the cruisers forming the shaft. The Japs initially opened fire on the cruisers but their shells fell short. They then shifted their fire to the SIGSBEE, the destroyer closest to the shore. We were not hit, but when Captain Russell realized that the SIGSBEE was the target, he immediately ordered the Officer of the Deck to starboard side (the action side) and he went to the port side of the bridge away from the action, as if the light bridge structure would protect him if the bridge were hit! (This cowardly act by the Captain was communicated like wildfire through the ship's crew.) The SIGSBEE'S gunfire hit one or more gun emplacements on the island; there was a big explosion and fire. From then on, Japanese return fire was ineffective even when we were placed closer to shore.
Action was not over for the SIGSBEE. When the Task Force departed Wake Island, SIGSBEE was ordered to make contact with one of our submarines which had a wounded man on board. We went to the designated area and with our sound gear tried to make contact. Contact failed and after being in the area for perhaps 30 minutes, a high flying flight of Japanese planes flew over but failed to make an attack. This caused the Captain to break off the effort and we went to full power to catch up with the other ships. We learned later that the wounded submariner was Bill Maxon, one of my Annapolis classmates and one of the "five stripers" at the Academy. We learned he was on the deck of his surfaced submarine when it was strafed by a Japanese plane and he was wounded by a deck splinter. As the sub returned to Pearl Harbor, Bill contacted pneumonia and died.
The next operation of importance, was the invasion of Tarawa. The initial bombardment on November 22-23, 1943, by battleships and cruisers was of such intensity that we believed the Japs were severely crippled. However, it turned out that such was not the case. The bombardment knocked off the upper layer of their fortifications but did not disable the personnel. When the Marines went in with landing craft they were met with withering fire. To make matters worse, many of our landing craft were stranded on surrounding reefs and the Marines had to wade in against brutal fire. There was a pier that extended some distance from the shore and there was an enemy machine gun nest under its outermost edge which reportedly caused many Marine casualties before it was located and wiped out. I distinctly recall a message issued by the Marine Commander about 1400 which reported that "the issue is in doubt", --this about eight hours after the initial landing of the Marines.
It was the first night of the invasion that we were ordered to escort the troop transports away from the island in anticipation that the Japs would attempt to attack with aircraft. Nothing unusual happened during the night but just at the break of dawn we, and other ships, picked up an unidentified radar contact. We were ordered to investigate the contact while the other ships changed course to open the distance from the contact. The contact was very low in the water and we initially could not tell if it was a partially submerged submarine or what. As we go closer, we determined that it was a disabled amphibious "Alligator". There were three Marines still aboard and it was slowly sinking. As I remember it had only about a foot and half of freeboard left when we recovered the Marines. One does not need to have a vivid imagination to know how grateful those three Marines were! It was only by the Grace of God that they were saved as they would not have been found to be missing for days, if then.
The second night we were called on to deliver sporadic fire. Before the Marine spotter who had been directing our shore bombardment fire during the second afternoon signed off at darkness, he told us that it was expected that many of the Japs would probably try to escape by crossing to another island at low tide. To prevent their escape, he requested sporadic fire all night long. At times we would fire all five-inch guns, then one or two guns, etc. all at various intervals from a few seconds to a few minutes. When the Marine spotter came on the radio in the morning, he said, "there were dead Japs all over the place." We continued to remain on station throughout the third day as the Marines secured the island. With the high-powered rangefinder of the Gun Director we could observe the Marines as they captured bunkers and pillboxes. It was during this time that a Japanese submarine was discovered trying to penetrate our destroyer screen that had been set up to protect the transports. The initial contact was made by a 2100 ton destroyer (the same class as the SIGSBEE) who really "worked it over". This destroyer was running out of depth charges and called for assistance. A smaller, 1650 ton destroyer, came to assist just as the Japanese sub broke surface. The 1650 rammed into the sub amidships and apparently severed the sub in half, as it broke up and sank in a very short time.
I firmly believe that Marines deserve every accolade that can be given and much more! We who were there realize what the Marines went through. It was brutal in all respects. We, on board ship, could at least go below and take a shower when it was over. Marines cannot; they must live in ruins, stench, and much worse. I will always hold those Marines in the highest regard!
After Tarawa was secured, we loaded a cargo of captured land and anti-tank mines for delivery to Pearl Harbor. A young officer came aboard with the mines. It was his job to "take care of them" on the return trip. Unfortunately, the officer couldn't take the normal rolling and pitching of the destroyer; he was sick all the way on the return voyage. This officer was a most happy person as he descended the gang plank in Pearl.
The next operation was the Marshall Island campaign, i.e. Kwajalein, in January, 1944. We arrived on site in the afternoon. A Japanese tug, thinking that a task force of friendly forces arrived, came steaming out of the lagoon to greet us, only to quickly discover that we were not flying the flag of he Rising Sun! The tug did an immediate turn and made it back into the lagoon before receiving any fire.
On the first evening of the invasion by our forces, SIGSBEE was ordered to anchor about 1500 yards off-shore and, after sundown, to illuminate the front lines on Kawajalein with our searchlights. It had been determined that camouflaged gun emplacements stood out more readily under searchlights and illumination helped prevent Japs from sneaking up on our troops. As Officer of the Deck on the 2000 to 2400 watch, my orders were to turn on the lights on the hour for one-half hour. I recall turning them on at 2100 and off about 2130. No problem! There was a spar buoy about half way between us and the shore. Shortly after turning on the light at 2200, I noticed a splash half-way between the spar buoy and the shore. That didn't disturb me very much as early-on during the invasion here would be splashes from stray artillery shots covering the beaches. However, shortly thereafter, there was another splash right next to the buoy. This really captured my attention and I immediately headed to the Captain's Sea Cabin to alert him we might be coming under fire. Just as he was coming out of his cabin there was a large splash right alongside the starboard side of the ship. The Captain immediately ordered the light out, the anchor to be slipped, and we got underway leaving our station. The Captain then informed the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC) that we were under fire and were leaving our station. The OTC ordered a cruiser to assist and ordered SIGSBEE back on station with orders to continue illumination. This really upset the Captain. He was beside himself, saying loudly and repeating himself, "He (the OTC) is trying to sink us!" We return to our station and every time we turned on our lights the Japanese would fire at us. Although we did not take any hits, the shells were close enough to cause the Skipper to douse the lights. We initiated counter-battery fire but the many flashes on the island prevented us from zeroing in on our targets. Around midnight we were relieved from turning on the searchlights. I concluded that the OTC had decided our efforts were ineffectual as we could never leave the lights on for any length of time without becoming an attractive target.
As a precaution in case it became necessary to "slip the anchor," a marker buoy had been attached to the anchor with a cable so that the anchor could be recovered. After Kwajalein had been secured we returned to retrieve the anchor. Once we had the marker buoy aboard and were hauling in the anchor, the cable suddenly parted. I'm confident SIGSBEE'S anchor is today resting on the ocean bottom of Kawajalein Island.
Following the successful operations at Kwajalein, the SIGSBEE returned to Pearl Harbor for replenishment. While there, an ALNAV (All Navy Advisory) was received which called for applications for flight training. To me this was a golden opportunity to do two things, 1) to get into flying and 2) to get off SIGSBEE. I had an ambitious idea that after the war, I would obtain an aeronautical engineering degree in addition to being flight-capable. A flight physical was part of the application requirements. The doctor on duty at the Naval Hospital on Oahu told me I would have to have a "Request for Physcial," approved by my Commanding Officer. I returned to the SIGSBEE and had a yeoman prepare the request which I took to the Captain's cabin. Knocking on his door, he invited me in. I was unaware that he had a visitor present. I showed the Captain my Request for Physical and requested his approval. After reading the request he abruptly tossed it on his desk - telling me that he would "discuss it with me later". I countered that I had to get the physical that day as the SIGSBEE was to get underway the next day. "This will be my only chance to get the physical," I pleaded. The Captain reluctantly signed the Request, I returned to the hospital where I passed the physical. That evening, after chow, the Captain called me into his cabin and said, "That was a dirty trick you pulled on me this morning. You knew I had to sign your request because I had a classmate visitor!"
I still had one big hurdle to overcome. I had to get the Captain's endorsement on my Flight Application. Again, I had a yeoman prepare my request, including a favorable endorsement, and I placed it on the Captain's desk. While loading ammunition (around 2230 on the day after my physical) in preparation for departure I inquired of Lt. Tucker, the Executive Officer, if the Captain had signed my Request. The Captain was asleep when the Exec entered his cabin, observed that my request was unsigned and so informed me. I told Lt. Tucker it needed to be signed before we departed -- otherwise it would be late and disallowed. Lt. Tucker promised he'd "get it in the last mail before our departure." He retrieved the Request and with great courage as the captain was sleeping, signed his name, "By direction" for the Captain. I was greatly relieved to see the Request mailed as we sailed for operations in the South Seas.
On March 20, 1944 we sortied to participate in the bombardment of Kavieng, New Ireland. It was while we were involved in this operation that orders came to the ship for me to report for flight training in Dallas. I was elated! But, Captain Russell, in his usual argumentative manner, decided he wouldn't release me immediately, saying, "I was needed on the next operation but would endorse my orders immediately thereafter." We were then on a one-week escort operation. Upon returning to Efate, the Captain approved my release, but before doing so called me to his cabin and told me that, "I was making a big mistake by leaving his ship to go into flying." He patted himself on his back by telling me that "he had made a good officer out of me". All of which I took "with a grain of salt."
Robert D. Karls.............Navy Career:
U.S. Naval Academy 1930-42, V-7 Instructor Note Dame, Plank Owner Ensign USS SIGSBEE DD-502, Flight School Training, Full Lieutenant Assigned USS SPROSTON DD-577, Commanding Officer of SPROSTON Nov. 2 1945 to Jan. 18, 1946 Reserve Fleet, MIT 1946-49 Master's Degree in Naval Engineering, 1949-1952 Portsmouth Shipyard, Pearl Harbor 1952-53 assigned to SERVPAC in charge of repairs to combatant ships, Newport News 1954-59 Rank of Commander, Design Superintendent involved with the construction of the nuclear carriers FORRESTAL and RANGER, Pentagon 1959-64 Navy's Bureau of Ships, Branch Head of Landing ships, Boats, and Amphibians. Navy Retirement 1964.
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